In my college stress management textbook, Coping with Stress in a Changing World, I define stress as “a holistic transaction between an individual and a potential stressor that results in a stress response.” This way of defining stress combines three elements from most modern definitions of stress;
(1) view stressors as potential stressors,
(2) transforming a potential stressor into an actual stressor involves a transaction between you and the potential stressor that takes place in a specific holistic context, and
(3) the outcome of the transaction determines whether a physiological stress response is activated.
Stress begins with the presence of a potential stressor, something that is a personal threat and has the ability to trigger a stress response within you. This potential stressor can be a person, place, thing, situation, thought, emotion, or bodily sensation. There is an unlimited variety of potential stressors. It’s important to understand that a stressor is really just a potential stressor until you feel threatened by it and unable to cope. A bill, for example, is generally not a stressor if you have enough money in your checking account to pay it. It becomes a stressful factor when you don’t know how you’re going to pay for it or when you know you need that money for something else. Often the threat posed by a potential stressor is more ambiguous than just described, and the unease you feel when exposed to it is due in part to your inability to identify what makes you uncomfortable. The threat could be to your self-esteem, someone dear to you, or a variety of other things.
A transaction is the actual assessment of the threat posed by the potential stressor. It is about weighing the degree of threat posed by the potential stressor against your perceived ability to cope. Coping involves your own psychological strengths as well as external resources. An important fact about stress transactions is that they do not occur in a vacuum. They are holistic because they are influenced by your general level of physical, social, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, occupational, and environmental health at the time you are exposed to them. Your general level of health and wellness provides a frame of reference (or context) for your exposure to and evaluation of the potential stressor.
Your assessment of a potential stressor is always influenced by when and where you are exposed and your general level of health and wellness at that time. That’s why you’ll evaluate the same potential stressor differently the next time you’re exposed to it. Not only will you be exposed to it at a different time and under different circumstances, but you’ll be a different person (a little older and wiser, maybe more rested, maybe on your way home from a wonderful vacation, etc.).
The last component of my definition refers to the response that is triggered once you perceive a potential stressor as threatening and beyond your ability to cope. The stress response begins in your brain as it sends messages throughout your body through nerve transmissions and circulating hormones that initiate a complex response designed to mobilize energy to fight or flee the stressor. This fight or flight response is immediate, lifesaving, and is the same for all people in response to all stressors. If fight or flight is not possible, your body switches to a lower intensity response that adapts and resists the presence of the stressor. Over time, if the stressor isn’t removed or dealt with effectively, it wears you out. While the stress response is initially beneficial and designed to get you out of harm’s way and save your life, frequent or continued activation of this same response can cause serious physical and psychological health problems.
Stress as a holistic phenomenon
Let’s use getting stuck in traffic and being 20 minutes late for an appointment as an example of what I mean by the holistic nature of stress. Imagine you are on your way to work this morning. Last night you had a bitter argument with your husband/wife and slept on the couch. You had a fitful night’s sleep and woke up late, with back pain. You arrive late, you rush out of the house, you forget your briefcase and you don’t have time to eat breakfast. On the way to work, he picks up coffee and an egg sandwich at the drive-in window of his local fast food store. Still angry at your spouse and feeling distracted by the rush, you walk out of the store without looking and nearly crash into another car. He swerves to avoid the other driver, spilling hot coffee all over his new business suit that he just received last night in the process. Five miles into his 30-mile commute to work, there was an accident on the highway involving a tractor-trailer and a minivan that slowed down traffic. You realize that this will make you 20 minutes late for work and you will miss your appointment. Now you are really furious and yell and scream about the accident when you pass it on the road. She fumbles for her cell phone and while trying to drive and dial, she calls his boss and explains that he will be late for work. His utter sense of helplessness and inability to cope with this situation sounds the alarm for the onset of a stress response.
Let’s look at the same accident and a 20-minute delay under different circumstances. Imagine it is six months later. You’re on your way to work this morning. Last night she had a wonderful romantic evening with her husband / her wife. Her daughter slept over at a friend’s house and her spouse suggested that they play a little tennis together and then go out for dinner and a drink, even though it was the middle of the week. You had a great tennis match, a wonderful meal, shared a great bottle of wine, and had the best sex in a long time, knowing that your daughter was fast asleep at her friend’s house. You slept like a log and woke up late, but with a smile on your face.
You run out of the house, but be sure to stop and give your spouse a big hug and a kiss. On the way to work, she buys coffee and an egg sandwich at her local fast food store’s drive-in window. You are careful not to spill the coffee on yourself as you slowly merge into traffic. A car cuts in front of you, but you see it coming and can avoid it without spilling coffee on yourself. Leaving the store, he finds himself smiling and singing a song on the radio. You can’t remember when an egg sandwich tasted so good. In a few minutes you enter the highway. Five miles into his 30-mile commute to work, there was an accident on the highway involving a tractor-trailer and a minivan that slowed down traffic. You realize this would make you 20 minutes late for work. Passing by the scene of the accident, you take a sip of coffee and are thankful that it wasn’t you who was in the accident. You stop and call your boss on your cell phone and explain that you would be late for work. You call the person you had the date with, apologize, and reschedule for another date.
In both situations he was exposed to the same potentially stressful situation; being late, getting stuck in traffic, and being 20 minutes late for work and an appointment. You encountered the potential stressor in two different sets of circumstances. These circumstances and the time between the two occasions definitely played a role in how he perceived the potential stressor each time it presented itself. In the first scenario you were already tired and in a bad mood from the events of the previous night and early morning. Under those circumstances, you were unnecessarily rushed and distracted. Getting stuck in traffic and being late for work was very threatening and something he just couldn’t deal with. In the second scenario, he was in such a good mood from the events of the night before and early in the morning that he felt like he could tackle almost anything. You were thinking more clearly and realized that rushing unnecessarily wouldn’t get you to work much faster at that time of the morning. Instead of feeling stressed, he felt lucky to be safely in his car as he crawled past the scene of the accident.
A new way of looking at coping
Defining stress as a holistic transaction between an individual and a potential stressor that results in a stress response establishes a completely new way of dealing with stress. When you view stress in this way, you no longer see it as something that just happens to you and is out of your control. Stress is about more than “bills” or “traffic” or “the government.” Stress is now seen as something you can take an active role in understanding and managing. This gives you a sense of power because it provides multiple places where you can step in and intervene in the transaction. The progression from potential stressor to actual stressor and stress response does not have to happen automatically. You play the most important role in determining how you proceed.
The first way to intervene is to make a subtle change in your language. Simply using the words potential stressor, rather than calling them stressors, deactivates their power to create stress. It allows you to stop accepting the outdated belief that certain things are inherently stressful. The whole notion of universal stressors (things that are threats to everyone in all circumstances) is nonsense and something you will no longer accept without question.
Another example of how you can intervene in the jump from a potential stressor to a stress response is to build a toolbox of different types of coping strategies that are based on your values and work for you. In my approach to stress management, I teach students and clients a variety of coping strategies and levels that will give them all the tools they need to deal with an endless variety of potential stressors. Think of each coping strategy as a resource you have at your disposal to deal with stressors. The more different coping resources you have at your disposal, the easier it is to find one that works for you against a specific stressor in a specific place and time. Once you develop such a repertoire of coping strategies, you begin to build confidence in your ability to cope with almost any potential stressor. This is called your perceived ability to cope. If you believe you can cope with a potential stressor, you will prevent it from being perceived as a threat. In other words, if you feel that a potential stressor is not a threat and you think you can cope with it, you can short-circuit your stress response.
Ultimately, by understanding that the stress transaction is holistic in nature, you will begin to recognize the important role your health plays in your stress response. Since each stress transaction is influenced by your overall level of well-being across all seven dimensions of health (physical, social, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, occupational, and environmental), you can become more resilient to stress by developing high-level health. . High-level health can help you prevent potential stressors from becoming real stressors by giving you the energy and resources you’ll need to accurately assess and deal with them appropriately.